What should students wear? Who decides? Dress codes can be a real minefield for schools

The Associated Press

Kate McClintock, 12, left, Kate Green, 13, and Lilly Bond, 13, look at their smartphones at Lilly's home in Evanston, Ill. on Thursday, April 3, 2014. The friends are seventh-graders at Haven Middle School in Evanston, which has been at the center of a controversy over its dress code. Parents and students, including these girls, complain that the school's restrictions on girls' attire, including leggings, is inconsistent and targets girls with certain body types. The district is reviewing the school and district policies. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

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By MARTHA IRVINE, AP National Writer

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — They're called leggings — popular fashion items that are tight-fitting pants to some, and glorified tights to others.

Younger girls often wear them as pants with little fuss. But as those same girls approach middle school, leggings have become a clothing accessory that's increasingly controversial — and seemingly, the favorite new target of the school dress code.

Some schools have banned leggings outright. Others have set limits. Haven Middle School in Evanston, just north of Chicago, took what turned out to be a contentious stand: If you wear leggings, you need to have a shirt or skirt over them that reaches at least down to your fingertips.

In other words, girls need to cover their behinds.

It might seem a reasonable enough request at a time when school dress codes — and even school uniforms — are common and often supported by teachers and administrators who frequently complain about students who push the limits of good taste, and the parents who let them (and may even push those limits themselves).

But how far is too far? And do schools sometimes go too far in pushing back?

Judges have tended to side with schools when safety is a concern. For example, a federal court agreed with a school district in Morgan Hill, Calif., after some high school students were told not to wear American flag T-shirts on the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo in 2010. The worry was that the shirts would incite conflict with the school's many Hispanic students.

When safety isn't at issue, says Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, the courts tend to throw the cases back to the schools and parents, so they can come up with solutions together.

It's not always easy, since many people have a different notion of what's appropriate and what's not — and what's distracting, and what's not.

At Haven Middle School, there has been a lot of confusion. Just a few weeks ago, the school's own website said leggings were banned, when apparently they were not, school officials now say. Then there was the matter of yoga pants, which are tight like leggings, but flared at the bottom. Did the fingertip rule also apply to those types of pants, especially when no one could tell the difference if they were tucked into boots, which is also a popular style among teens?

The discussions at school meetings have sometimes bordered on silly. But few disagree that there are serious issues at hand here — among them, whether girls are being shamed and unnecessarily embarrassed at a time when they're already starting to feel more aware of their changing bodies.

Clearly frustrated with the debate, Haven Middle School teachers posted this statement on the school's website to explain the reasoning behind the leggings policy: "We believe, through years of experience and professionalism, that it is essential to our school's climate that we set a standard of expectation and decorum."

They denied that they acted because leggings distract boys, as has been alleged by some parents.

"The notion that girls' clothing affects the way boys learn is not, and never will be, our message," the statement said.

However, parents who've attended school meetings, and students who dislike the policy, seem most troubled by an inconsistency in enforcement. They claim that some girls are "dress-coded" more than others, perhaps because they are more physically developed. They say, for example, that they have heard comments like, "If you were smaller, you could wear this and it would be fine."

"I've also seen skinny, smaller girls walking around in leggings every week and never, ever getting caught for it," says Kate Green, a seventh-grader at Haven who concedes that she probably fits that category herself. She's had warnings, she said, but never more than that, when other girls have had to put their gym shorts over their outfits if they're in dress code violation.